August 31st, 2008

My wife loves 老诚一锅/lǎochéngyīguō’s 羊蝎子/yángxiēzi/”sheep scorpion” hotpot. It’s a hotpot with a pile of bits of dead sheep- mostly from around the spine, so far as I can tell- boiled in the broth. You eat the bits of dead sheep- or get what meat you can off them- and put the usual hotpot veges, meat and other bits and pieces in to cook.

The first time I ate Laochengyiguo was at the Yayuncun branch. I was not impressed. It was far too 麻 (the numbing flavour from Sichuan pepper) for my tastes, and the mutton fat flavour was overpowering. But at least it had flavour, even if it was a flavour I didn’t much appreciate. That’s one key thing about food: To be good, it must have a flavour. Food with no flavour can never be anything more than mere fuel.

Anyway, I’m not a great fan of the yangxiezi hotpot, but lzh likes it. There’s a restaurant nearby which does its own version, but somehow lzh found online the address of a branch of Laochengyiguo nearby. We couldn’t find it, not for a long time. Then, while out on a bike ride one beautiful Beijing summer day (not as oxymoronic a phrase as you’d believe if you’ve been relying on the Western press and a few grumpy expats for your information on Beijing) I stumbled across a restaurant with a big Laochengyiguo sign over the door hidden down a backstreet in Huawei Xili. Last night we finally cycled over to check it out.

Now, what did I just write about “flavour”? About it being necessary for food to be good? About how food without flavour can never be anything more than mere fuel? Yeah. Management of that branch of Laochengyiguo- a branch the waiter claimed was the original restaurant- needs to learn about that. Good food has flavour. We did manage to detect some salt in the broth, but whoopdeedoo, this is north China, every cook here manages to put salt in their food, sometimes a very large amount of salt, and yet almost all of them manage to add some flavour beyond the salt. Even the meat didn’t really taste of much, and I don’t know how they managed that. Lamb may not have quite as strong a flavour as mutton, but it usually has flavour.

And when we called over the waitress and told her it was not spicy, she said, “Yes it is, look, there’s chilli in there”, pointing at the tiny little red bits floating around. Not the appropriate response to a customer complaint.

And as I mentioned, the waiter claimed this was the original Laochengyiguo restaurant. Funny how the website lists the main branch at Niujie and does not list a branch anywhere near Huawei Xili (hmmm…. you might have to click on “联系我们” to see the list). In fact, I’m struggling to figure out how lzh ever found an address for a branch in that area- oh, wait, here we go, it’s on Dianping’s list of Laochengyiguo branches. But who do you trust?

Well, whether that branch is “real” or not, I don’t know. I just wanted to treat lzh to one of her favourite meals, and we walked away disappointed. Flavourless food, and although the service was alright, I don’t appreciate the staff disputing our judgement of the food- we’re eating it and if we’re saying it has no flavour, you might want to perhaps find a way to satisfy us. Trouble is, they were obviously not lacking for customers, therefore one or two upset or disappointed people probably won’t have any effect on their business.

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